LaBelle Engine Works


Fourth of July Parade

Fourth of July Parade, Alpena, 1991. Pete LaBelle, waving; Steve Smolinski, tending

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802 Shady brook Holland, Michigan 49424

Most of us have various stories as to when our interest in steam really started. Mine started when I was six or seven.

Every summer always included a couple weeks stay with my Grampa (Bill Deachin) over in Ubly, Michigan. One particular summer, Grampa took me to a steam show. It was one of the groups over in the Thumb of Michigan area. We had a blast, while Gramma patiently (I think) waited in the car. The next few summer stays were spent cruising to various local shows and to the few remaining engines in the area. One summer I arrived and was led into the neatly packed garage (Grampa was a pack rat) to see a 1 HP McCormick Deering resting under his bench. His dad had bought it new, but it was left behind when the farm was sold a few decades earlier. On a whim, Grampa visited the present owner and they went for a walk to one of the old out buildings. There, under an old oil cloth, sat the old engine. A deal was made and the farmer dropped it off for us to play with. We had a good time learning and playing with the old engine. When he passed on, it came my way and still remains in my archives.

In junior high, MY first engine came along. Dad had located an old Fairbanks Morse 5 HP 'Z' at a deer camp up near Alpena, Michigan, where I lived until recently. It was in pretty rough shape. You know no mag, cracked water jacket, rusted in piston, valves frozen, brass pieces missing. A pretty much 'standard as-find' condition.

Dad kind a figured it would end up being 'a good learning experience' (i.e., it'll never run), but my first restoration was under way! Not knowing what it really was missing, I kept on cleaning and painting. About the time I was realizing that I now owned a painted up piece of useless cast iron, the deer camp owner showed up with an old Dupont dynamite box with the pieces that were missing off the engine. He'd removed them years earlier to fix a few worn parts, but never put them on, and consequently lost track of them. A month or so later, the ol' Fairbanks barked to life. I also discovered the painful correlation between bad ignition timing and hand cranks. Ouch!

Through high school, five other one-lungers followed in its skid marks across the work shop floor. One afternoon, while the latest restoration was barking in the backyard and the smell of burning Rust-Oleum was in the air, I came to realize that these engines, though fun to restore, were about as much fun to operate as an electric motor. (Sorry, internal combustion fans.) It was about then that I decided to abandon the gas hobby and concentrate on my real yearning: steam.

My first real steam engine came along when I was a senior in high school. It was a 5' x 7' E.H. Waches upright. It spent most of its life running a large cement mixer and consequently was encased in cement. The insides were well oiled and clean, making only a cosmetic restoration necessary. I never did see it run, as it, and most of the gas engines, needed to be sold a few years later to help fund college. The Waches is on its second owner since me, and I don't think it has seen any steam to date.

That year (1978), a friend gave me a 3' x 4' upright steam engine of unknown origin, along with a punky boiler and the necessary trimmings. The boiler was a vertical fire tube type, with a leaky mud ring. A satisfactory, but leaky, hydro-test was pulled and an old Iron Man by the name of Bill French deemed the boiler safe from rupture, but not very dry. He suggested pouring in two or three pounds of rice into the boiler and let it sit for the night. This was an old trick he had used many a time to seal up leaky boilers. Surprisingly, it worked. (Looking back, I can see my actions in this were not very smart, and I don't recommend this to anyone.) The engine was plumbed to it and Bill and I spent the rest of the summer learning the fundamentals of firing, injector operation, lubrication and, of course, whistle blowing. That fall, the engine went into storage, and the boiler found a new owner.

Several years later, married, kid on the way, and an engineering career launched, I was approached by the Alpena Antique Tractor and Steam Engine Club to set something up for their show, ONE week away. I started out setting up a static display of my engine and newly acquired VFT boiler, but figured it would be a whole lot more fun to have a live display. A heavy skid was built, equipment anchored, pipes plumbed, surfaces painted or polished, and the first live trial was done after we loaded up that Friday night. The show went well, and I was sunburned and hoarse by Sunday night after answering so many questions, but enjoyed every minute of it.

One thing ground at me as that show progressed. Most everyone had a tractor of sorts to ride around on while I sat patiently by my set-up. I had to find a steam engine on wheels!

Within a few years, three small portable steam engines came almost close enough to be caught (or bought), but boiler work on all three would have been very costly. It seemed that the only way that I was going to become an owner of a steam traction engine that I could afford would be to build one.

'Twas the summer of 1990, and what to build? Looking back at past show photos and going to a few shows that summer to purposely look at home-builts led to a wide array of creations ranging from 'to the tee' exact scale reproductions, to some pretty scary set-ups that I stayed well clear of. Being I am not a very patient person to build a highly detailed scale copy (and I marvel at those who do), I decided to create a tractor that looked old, but snuck in some modem features for safety and parts availability reasons. The VFT boiler that was apprehended several years earlier was built in 1950, and was in pristine condition; since no expensive boiler work was required for operation, the tractor was designed around it.

First order of business was wheels. An old steel wheeled manure spreader was needed. A casual Sunday afternoon drive (actually with purpose) caused a hard stop and some 'words' from my wife. There, in the woods, frame sagging, a 4' sapling growing through the floorboards, was just what the doctor ordered. The owner was found and it was mine for the taking. A rescue mission was organized for the next day, and all went well until we arrived back home. My wife didn't want the tired old spreader anywhere near the house. Can't understand why, but we took it up to my place of work and started cutting out what was needed.

My place of work at the time gave me full access to a fabricating shop. Undertaking a project like this was made much easier with the 'right' equipment, and I have to thank my leader. Dinger, for its use, and Steve Smolinski for the able bodied assistance during construction.

Steel was ordered and fabbed up into the frame. The wheels were sandblasted, full and stub axles turned to fit each individual bore, and attached to the frame. Steering had many options, but instead of a frequently used steering box from a car, I opted to pivot the front axle at its center like the real steamers, and use chains and a 3' winding drum driven by a 10:1 right angle gearbox. The gearbox was coupled to a tube and an old hand wheel from a mill (complete with suicide knob!). It takes about 15 easy turns hard left to hard right, and works slick.

The 3' x 4' upright engine was mounted to the frame. It has a slip eccentric reverse on it which is simple, but not a good choice for a tractor, as the flywheel needs to be spun the opposite direction to reverse the motion. This means the engine cannot be used as a 'brake,' and has slipped into reverse while lugging up a hill. Not a good situation to slip an engine into reverse on a whim with the throttle and governor wide open and a no load situation zipping down a hill. Another engine with some sort of link reverse is being sought. (Anybody have a 3 x 4 or 4 x 4 upright with a link reverse for trade? Have others to barter with!)

The engine was roller chain driven to a cone type clutch from an old Husky 2 wheel garden tractor. This in turn goes to a 1' diameter axle/differential from a riding lawnmower or something. Roller chain sprockets on each end of the differential are chained to each rear wheel. 24' roller chain sprockets were welded basi-cally to the spokes and outer rim of the wheels with some spacers and are working well.

The boiler was lowered into a new steel ashbox. Not being able to attach anything to a boiler by bolting or welding without proper legal procedures resulted in a pretty effective method of attachment to the frame. The ashbox provided a lip on the inner side for the bottom edge of the boiler to rest on. The top head of my boiler is constructed with a drawn head riveted to the inside of the shell. This creates a lip on the top edge of the shells' sheet, the thickness of the sheet. A x 1' flat stock ring was rolled and welded together to form a tight fitting ring that presses over the head and rests on the outer sheet's edge. To this was welded some straps, and the boiler was drawn onto the ashbox lip with three heavy turn-buckles. It works out well. Even the local boiler inspector was impressed.

Boiler pressure was designed and tested to run at 100 pounds. All pipe work was done in Schedule 80. Schedule 40 would handle the pressure, but the mechanical strength of the threads was my concern. A tractor gets bounced around a lot on its travels, and with heavy whistles, lubricators, valves and other hardware on the end of the pipes, I didn't want to risk a break at the threads. The engine was a long way from the boiler, and I knew it would not always vibrate in sync with the boiler, so it is coupled to the throttle with a Teflon core, stainless braid hose. The rest of the gauges, valves, injector and water columns were pulled from stock and installed.

Final painting and trimming took place, and the boiler was properly hydro-tested and passed with flying colors. By the light of a mercury vapor light, the first steam-up occurred in view of a dozen friends. Everything went pretty well. A few 'engineering improvements' were made early that next morning, then off to the Alpena steam show. Six long weeks earlier, the first steel was cut! Nothing like waiting for the last minute to start a project!

Improvements and enhancements have been done on a continual basis. I've been in four parades with it thus far, and it has been well enjoyed. Even the neighbors liked it, whistle and all. On the first firing at the house and a few cruises in the street, one neighbor came over and stated,' And I thought all the boys in the neighborhood had grown up.'

We've since moved to Holland, Michigan, and have acquired three more engines to clutter up the garage. Someday I'll have a 'real' steamer tractor, but for now, this one does everything I need it to.

I will be happy to talk to prospective builders of tractors to discuss what I learned on this adventure of mine. I am, by far, not an expert in the field, but do have some background accumulated over the years that I'm willing to share.

One last thing I'd like to state is that when restoring or building a steamer, make safety your biggest priority. There is a tremendous amount of energy stored up in a boiler and its plumbing. When under pressure and a system failure occurs (broken pipe, blow tube/flue, ruptured boiler, etc.), not only does the steam escape, but all of the water, now above its boiling point, will flash into expanding scalding steam. This catastrophe could ruin your machine, damage your buildings and nearby neighbors' buildings, injure you, and, especially, hurt the curious that came to see your piece of history. Besides the personal loss of property and limb, your liability will get very heavy to the public. If you don't know what you are doing when building or operating an engine, learn first! For example, think twice when scrounging through your old pipe box for fittings. Is your train of thought 'This is close enough,' or, 'This is more than adequate'? If 'close enough' is your thinking, then do us all a favor and keep your machine at home. I know that the bulk of the steam community has a good mindset in this area, but there are a few of the cobblers among us that will give us all some bad publicity in the event of an accident!